Police Panel Scraps ID Policy
Without any public discussion, the Los Angeles Police Commission decided two months ago to overturn a 25-year-old policy and begin withholding the names of police officers involved in shootings.
Commission President John W. Mack, who for years was a prominent civil rights activist noted for his insistence on holding officers accountable, said the commission made the change after being told that state law protects the privacy of officers.
In fact, while the law has long recognized an officer’s right to privacy, it has also given police agencies wide discretion to release such information, legal experts said.
In Los Angeles, the Police Commission has released the names of officers involved in shootings since 1980, a practice embraced by the public after the controversial killing by LAPD officers of a South Los Angeles woman in 1979. Since then, the actions of LAPD officers involved in shootings have frequently been the object of intense public interest -- although police officers have routinely objected to being identified.
The change in commission policy was made during a closed-door meeting Dec. 13. The five-member civilian panel, which functions much like a corporate board for the Police Department, sets standards and oversees operations in conjunction with Chief William J. Bratton. It meets each Tuesday and usually makes decisions in public and by a majority vote. In this instance, it did neither.
Mack said in an interview last week that the commission changed the disclosure policy based on advice from a lawyer in the office of City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who concluded that commissioners had no choice in the matter. Delgadillo, whose office had previously approved the release of officers’ names, declined to be interviewed for this report.
On Friday, after inquiries from The Times, commission officials scheduled a public discussion of the policy change for today’s meeting.
The commission’s policy change had been in the making for nearly a year and was prompted, at least in part, by Police Commission Executive Director Richard Tefank, a former Buena Park police chief who has long said he believes the panel violates the law by releasing too much information about shootings. In a letter to the commission last week, Tefank summarized several state laws that he said indicate that officers’ names “may” be deemed private personnel information.
His concerns were echoed by leaders of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents LAPD officers. Union officials said that they discussed the matter with Tefank and that he suggested they threaten litigation if they wanted to see a change in the commission’s policy.
Tefank acknowledged advising the union to write a letter documenting its concerns but said he did not recall telling officials to threaten litigation.
“I don’t believe I did it, but if they say I did, I mean, that’s fine,” Tefank said.
After receiving the union’s letter in the spring of 2005, Tefank said, the commission sought a legal opinion from the city attorney.
Tefank said the commission received that opinion late last year. He said the city attorney concluded that officers’ names had to be withheld from the public. Tefank said the commission discussed the matter at least twice in closed session -- the threat of a lawsuit, he added, made it legal for commissioners to discuss it privately. The commissioners, he said, voted unanimously to change the policy. In a subsequent interview, however, Tefank said there had been no formal vote and commissioners had merely agreed that the policy should be changed.
Tefank declined to provide a copy of the legal opinion.
A week after the policy change, the commission announced with much fanfare a plan to “provide greater transparency” by posting detailed summaries of police shootings on the Internet. Those summaries, however, do not contain the officers’ names.
In touting its new approach to publicizing shooting details, the commission made no mention of its decision to withhold the identity of officers from other shooting reports.
“The irony of all this,” Mack said, “is that, frankly, it’s the commission’s desire to really become more public in sharing with the public the decisions that we make in closed session regarding the use of force incidents that we consider every week.”
The public reports in question are summaries written by the police chief, known in LAPD parlance as 15.2 reports. They were created in response to the 1979 shooting of Eulia Mae Love, a knife-wielding South Los Angeles housewife who was killed by police after a dispute over an unpaid gas bill.
Since then, the reports have been released as public documents. The commission reviews them when deciding whether an officer’s use of deadly force complies with department rules.
Over the years, the reports have provided details on a host of controversial episodes at the LAPD, including the 1999 shooting of Margaret Mitchell, a frail homeless woman who allegedly lunged at an officer with a screwdriver; shootings by Rampart Division officers; and, most recently, last year’s fatal shooting of 13-year-old Devin Brown, who allegedly backed up a stolen car toward an officer.
The Times used such reports in 2004 to examine the way the LAPD had investigated police shootings since 1985. The paper found that a small group -- 1% of the 16,000 officers who worked field assignments -- was involved in more than 20% of all shootings at suspects. One officer, for example, had four shootings in five months.
Under the new policy, such information cannot be gleaned by the public.
Last month, the first shooting report in which officers’ names were withheld involved a shooting by undercover internal affairs officers. In the report, Bratton recommended that a deputy chief, lieutenant and sergeants in charge of the covert sting operation be disciplined because their tactics were poor.
Not only does the change in policy end a long-standing practice of the Police Commission, it also contradicts the LAPD’s own handling of cases. Police officers’ names are released by the department in the immediate aftermath of a shooting, especially high-profile incidents attracting media attention. But those reports are often sketchy, and union officials argue that the re-release of officers’ names in reports detailing an incident months later represent a threat to officers’ safety.
“This has nothing to do with whether or not the media should have access or the public should have access to this information,” said Bob Baker, president of the LAPD’s union. “There are people who could use [this information] for not legitimate purposes. And that’s what our concern is.”
Many LAPD critics and advocates of government openness argue that although certain information in officers’ personnel records deserves to be private, their identity does not. They say that police officers wear their names on their uniforms to allow the public to readily identify them, and that their actions while in uniform are those of public officials, entrusted with the right to use force if necessary but accountable for using it properly.
“Part of the bargain when you get a badge and a gun is accountability,” said Jeffrey C. Eglash, a former inspector general for the Police Commission and an opponent of the new policy. “Although police officers, like any employees, have an interest in privacy, their jobs are unlike any other in that they have the power to arrest and to use deadly force.”